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Interview with Ghalí Martinez – project manager of #BeYourVoice, “UNESCO | Sabrina Ho Initiative prepared us for challenges of our time”

Ghalí Martinez is many things – actress, stage director, producer and teacher. At the age of 23, she directed and produced her first stage play “Battles of the Desert based on one of the most significant Mexican novels. Since 2018, Martinez is the project manager of #BeYourVoice, one of four winning proposals of “You Are Next” UNESCO | Sabrina Ho Initiative. In the past, the inhibiting cost and technical barriers have kept Mexican scenographers from using Virtual Reality (VR) technology. The UNESCO-Sabrina Ho project not only introduced VR technology into performing arts but also brought 100 women into the world of scenography, a heavily male-dominated profession. Martinez shares her experiences and stories behind the project’s success.

Published on 24.11.2020

Actress, stage director, producer and teacher – how do you define yourself?

Ghalí Martinez: When I was a child, I was interested in learning diverse, seemingly unrelated disciplines. But I always found commonalities between them, and I like sharing those findings with others. I would like to say that I am just a performer exploring different areas of the performing arts. Oh! And I like to teach too!

You have participated in many international performing arts festivals. What is the production you are most proud of?

Ghalí Martinez: It would be my first stage play “Battles of the Desert” by José Emilio Pacheco, an award-winning author who received the Miguel de Cervantes Prize in Literature in 2009. I directed and produced this play when I was only 23. I am still surprised that I was able to work on one of the most significant Mexican novels at such a young age. The novel has over 40 reprint editions and translations in English, Italian, French, Japanese, Greek, Russian and Arabic. It is a very compelling. It was a profoundly personal play and it was the best way to step into my professional career as an actress, director and producer.

What are the positive impacts that your association Teatro de Aire made?

Ghalí Martinez: When we were developing our association, we were always determined to create a positive impact on vulnerable groups. #BeYourVoice was no exception – our work reached 21 states in Mexico. We believe that most of the problems in our country could be solved by providing education in different regions, sectors and groups. Therefore, I think that our short- and long-term actions will be directed towards education, specifically taking arts and cultural training as a starting point.

What was your motivation as the project manager of #BeYourVoice?

Ghalí Martinez: Hope. When I learned about the UNESCO| Sabrina Ho initiative, I needed to find hope and a reason to keep doing arts in my country where there was an staggering lack of funds for culture. The earthquake worsened the financial situation for the creative sector. Looking at my and my colleagues’ living conditions, I noticed our circumstances were similar: we were precarious. I realized that a contingency plan for artists would have alleviated our suffering.

But it was useless to complain without action. I decided to apply to the program, which at the time seemed unattainable. I proposed an innovative plan that gave voice to creative women through their own work. When #BeYourVoice was accepted, the achievements of our association Teatro de Aire multiplied and touched the lives of people including our staff and the 100 beneficiaries. It felt like I was spreading my newly-found hope with everyone.

What was your most memorable moment during #BeYourVoice?

Ghalí Martinez: I have many stories, but I want to share one that moved me to tears. During the Virtual Reality classes, one of the participants was going in and out of the classroom. She stayed for a while, but then, she left. We asked her if everything was okay, but she did not want to go into details. Later, she asked us to reschedule her VR practices to deal with some personal issues, and to catch up with the assignments. At her first VR practice, she was simply fascinated. She started creating her first set design with such dedication and freedom. At the end, the professors gave her some advice on how to improve her material for the second practice.

On the day of the second practice, she arrived in a hurry with a big suitcase. She took the VR headset and the motion controllers, and kept working on her project. I remember that she was particularly focused on showing a butterfly trapped in a closed box with a light coming from within. When she finished her work, she approached me, apologized for the rush, and explained that she had been experiencing gender-based violence, from which she has just escaped. She said her family was supporting her, her son was safe, and she felt safer. She was thankful that #BeYourVoice had been a shelter for her. She said “Being with you brings me peace, because I know nothing will happen to me.’ I told her she was right and offered her support including legal assistance. She just asked to let her stay longer and watch her colleagues work till the end of the practices.

Her story showed us that, to many of us, art is not only a profession or a lifestyle, but also a space where we feel safe.

How will #BeYourVoice help your future career?

Ghalí Martinez: As the project manager, I learned many skills applicable to similar projects. From an artistic perspective, I am very excited to use this VR technology on a play that I have been planning since 2015. The play involves immersive technologies. Due to the lack of budget, technical knowledge, and the equipment, I had not been able to put it together at that time. Realizing this play will be an example of how #BeYourVoice takes my career to the next level.

“You Are Next” is designed to address gender equality within the digital creative industries. How can we encourage more women to work in the cultural and creative industries?

Ghalí Martinez: I definitely think that facilitating opportunities to involve women  is key. We need to provide training, so women can acquire digital skills and understand their future possibilities in the industry.

I also think that public officials in Mexico need to improve their knowledge because technology is not often seen as part of the art and culture development in our country. Some suggestions I have are to update curriculum of art schools, enrich the educational programs, and renew cultural venues with the proper infrastructure. Expanding the budget for artistic activities and developing tax incentives and policies to stimulate the private sector are also essential. Ideas are plenty – we need people who are willing to listen to them.

For private sectors, there should more awareness raising on the value of culture and its importance in stimulating innovative social changes. Besides, I think they could offer more financial support. They could also hire artists. Artists could give creative and digital services to their companies directly instead of outsourcing.

You have participated in the colloquium “Culture for Future” organized by the European Commission. What is your vision on the future of culture beyond the pandemic?

Ghalí Martinez: My vision is both hopeful and realistic. I am aware of the countless changes needed to restructure government cultural policies. Participating at the Brussels symposium allowed me to talk with fellows from around the world and put together 10 specific global recommendations to improve cultural practices by 2030.

My vision for culture beyond the COVID-19 pandemic keeps changing. In spite of the difficult times we are experiencing, I notice that this is a key moment to strengthen the development of the digital creative industries. In this regard, I am thankful to the UNESCO|Sabrina Ho Initiative because it has prepared us to face the challenges of our times.

Who is your female role model?

Ghalí Martinez:Although I am inspired by the careers of many women, especially by those who make things happen, I like to create and recreate my own path based on the things I learn at every stage of my life. What works for one woman may not work for another. Not having role models to follow and forging my own path seems to be accepted these days.

What advices would you give to women who want to work in the cultural and creative industries?

Ghalí Martinez: Have a clear vision of what you want to do. The answer to this question will give you the strength to go on even under unfavorable conditions.

I would also recommend that they acquire practical skills and learn processes linked to their activities, so that they can be the one to trouble shoot to save costs. Besides, there is nothing better than knowing everything about your own work and projects.

Finally, dream big, focus, and work hard! One day, dreams will come true. Becoming a “You Are Next” beneficiary seemed impossible but it came true. I made it! Thank the UNESCO| Sabrina Ho initiative for the opportunity!